Women who get more fiber from fruits and cereals may be less like to develop diverticulitis, a common and painful bowel problem, though vegetable sources of fiber don’t make much difference, a U.S. study suggests.
A low fiber diet has long been linked to an increased risk of diverticulitis, which occurs when small pockets or bulges lining the intestines become inflamed. But research to date hasn’t offered a clear picture of whether some forms of fiber might be better than others for minimizing the risk, researchers note in the American Journal of Gastroenterology.
For the current study, researchers followed 50,019 women who were 43 to 70 years old at the outset, and didn’t have a history of diverticulitis, cancer or inflammatory bowel disease. Over 24 years, 4,343 women developed diverticulitis.
Compared to those with the lowest amounts of fiber in their diet - around 13 grams a day - women who consumed the most fiber - closer to 27 grams a day - were 14% less likely to develop diverticulitis.
“People concerned about developing diverticulitis, particularly those with a history of the disease (who) are worried about another episode, might want to consider increasing their intake of fiber, particularly from fruits,” said Dr. Andrew Chan, senior author of the study and a researcher at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
Women who consumed the most fruit fiber - around 1.7 grams a day - were 17% less likely to develop the condition than their counterparts who ate the least, at around 1.4 grams daily.
Every additional daily serving of whole fruits and specific fruits like apples, pears and prunes was associated with a 5% lower risk of diverticulitis, the study also found. Some other fruits, including bananas, peaches, plums and apricots, didn’t appear to help reduce the risk.
Women who had the most cereal fiber each day - around 9.8 grams - were 10% less likely to develop diverticulitis than those who ate the least, at about 2.9 grams.
While consuming more vegetable fiber also seemed connected to a lower risk of diverticulitis, the difference between low and high amounts of this fiber in the diet was small and could have been due to chance.
Overall, the study participants consumed an average of 18 grams of fiber a day, less than the 25 daily grams recommended for optimal health in adult women.
Women who did get at least 25 grams of fiber a day were 13% less likely to develop diverticulitis than women who consumed less than 18 grams a day.
The study wasn’t designed to prove whether or how fiber intake might directly impact whether women developed diverticulitis.
One limitation of the study is that researchers relied on women to report their own eating habits and diverticulitis diagnosis. Another drawback is that researchers lacked data on the duration or severity of diverticulitis episodes.
Even so, the results offer fresh evidence of the importance of dietary fiber for optimal health, Chan said.
“When we eat fiber, our bodies, in collaboration with naturally occurring bacteria in our intestines, breaks it down into specific proteins that in turn might reduce inflammation which could predispose us to diverticulitis,” Chan said. “Fiber in our diets may also influence the natural movement or motility of our colon which affects the risk of diverticulitis.”